Thursday, March 11, 2010

Choosing a Writer's Group, Part I

Hi Valerie,
I took your writing class a few years ago and was working on a children’s book at the time. I’ve finished that book and now am writing a YA. I’d love to join a writer’s group. Do you have any suggestions of where I should start? Thanks so much.
Terry H.

Thanks, Terry, that’s a great question. Joining a writer’s group is an excellent way to keep on track with your writing. Groups can provide you with feedback on your manuscript progress as well as help you maintain a consistent writing schedule.

The first thing I can tell Terry and anyone else in her position is that there are essentially three distinct types of groups: professional organizations; critique groups; and writing “support” groups (for lack of a better term). Professional groups are organized somewhat along corporate lines with a president, a board of officers, bylaws, and the range of the group can be state- if not nation-wide or even international. In Terry’s case I would recommend she join up with a group such as The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. If her YA is perhaps a romance, joining Romance Writers of America would be a smart move too. And because Terry lives in the Atlanta area, she might like to also become a member of Georgia Writers.

The wonderful thing about these organizations and others like them is there really is at least one for every genre or region you can think of. The only possible drawback to joining might be the membership fees. That said, dues often include a subscription to a newsletter or magazine, and members should receive discounts to conferences and other events—events with editors, celebrity authors, workshops, and all sorts of good things only available through that particular organization.

Critique groups are frequently made up of members who belong to the same pro organizations described above. Not only do members hold a common interest in a particular genre or theme, but they probably all met each other at a conference or regional meeting to begin with! However, it isn’t necessary to think you have to belong to the larger group first. The most important criteria is whether you feel you can receive a helpful critique of your work from the group and you feel comfortable with the other members.

Critique groups work best when they are based on the premise that members will bring a certain amount of unpublished manuscript pages to the meetings and everyone participates equally in the critiquing. One of the best critique groups I ever belonged to met every two weeks for an 8-hour session (we brought our lunch). We were all writing novels at the time so members brought copies of their current chapter to each meeting. The person being critiqued read his or her manuscript pages aloud while the others followed along, pen in hand, making notes on typos or awkward sentences or just things that drove them crazy. When the reading was finished, we went around in a circle and discussed our notes. Then we gave the marked-up copies back to the writer being critiqued. It was a long day but oh, did we learn. And write. The screenwriting group I belong to now doesn't have the luxury of an 8-hour day and we meet in the evening. To save time we email our manuscripts to each other for critiquing at home. Then we bring our notes to the meetings for discussion.

My freewrting/support group is a whole 'nother kind of animal. Not only do we forego critiquing, we use the meetings as a time to experiment. Our format is simple but effective: as soon as we’re settled with coffee (we meet at a local bookstore cafe), we choose a writing prompt from whatever’s handy, e.g. a book title, a mood, or something already selected from a magazine cut-out. We then write on that topic in silence for 20 minutes. When the time’s up, we go around in a circle and read our pages. After that we spend a few minutes sharing personal or professional news, followed by the reading and sharing of our bi-weekly “assignments.” These are based on a prompt or theme chosen at the last meeting. Topics range from the philosophical, “What is art for?” to the evocative, “Into the woods…” We limit ourselves to five pages each so our meetings don’t go on too long.

Lately we’ve had the wonderful idea of including illustration to go with our writing. Members have been painting, collaging, drawing, photographing…it’s been thrilling to see how far we can go beyond words. We also welcome any genre or form of writing, from screenplay to poetry to personal essay. This year we’re doing most of our work in art journals to more easily accommodate both writing and artwork at the same time. I love it!

But what if you’re thinking, well, this sounds very nice but I don’t live anywhere near other writers, or, I’ve tried a couple of critique groups and just didn’t feel “right” about being there. I hear you loud and clear. Next post I’ll address these concerns and discuss how to start a group of your own while avoiding that great time and energy drain: the toxic group.

Tip of the Day: If you haven’t already, do consider joining a writers’ group. The most important thing is to decide which type is best for you.

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